Most Americans desire an effective change in current Iraq war strategy and the wider global war against Islamic extremists and nations supporting them. President Bush and the new U.S. defense secretary, Robert Gates, could deliver it by placing experienced unconventional warfare leaders in charge of the war effort.
Since forcibly removing Saddam Hussein from power in 2003, the U.S.-led coalition has been unable to quell insurgent-, terrorist- and sectarian-generated violence concentrated mostly in four of 18 provinces and Greater Baghdad which are dominated by majority-Sunni populations. About 150,000 Iraqis and nearly 3,000 Americans have died during continuing hostilities.
While many Americans recognize that the conflict in Iraq is not going well and changes need to be made, there is substantial disagreement at the national level on a military strategy. The United States is seriously considering adding several combat brigades from outside Iraq to “purge” Baghdad and several provinces infested with local and foreign troublemakers. Sending an additional 20,000 U.S. troops to Iraq under current military strategies and rules of engagement will be unlikely to make much difference.
Unlike U.S.-led coalition troops, the adversaries in this war do not carry arms openly, wear uniforms or insignias and abide by other laws and customs of wars specified in Geneva Conventions and protocols. They instill fear in military opponents and local populations through use of suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, kidnappings and beheadings. And they disguise themselves as civilians and hide among civilian populations with weapons stored and discharged from mosques, schools, hospitals, marketplaces, private residences and public roads.
To prevail, the United States has to transition from a conventional to an unconventional war footing and make the enemy pay a heavy price for its despicable tactics. In Iraq and elsewhere, traditional troops, weapons and tactics are less useful than tools of influence, covert operations and intelligence brought to the battlefield by special operators working harmoniously with indigenous forces and local populations. The prime objective is to create a climate of fear within enemy ranks that breaks its will to continue the armed insurrection against the freely elected Iraqi government.
Special Operations Forces (Rangers, Seals, Delta Force and other special units) leaders and troops are uniquely qualified for this mission. Special operators played prominent and successful roles in removing Afghanistan’s Taliban regime from power and disrupting al Qaeda’s terror base. In Iraq, they have spent most of their time searching for the infamous “deck of cards,” the elusive WMD arsenal, and high-value insurgents and terrorists.
Joint special operators (from all military branches) are also trained in local cultures and languages, making it easier for them to embed in local populations and Iraqi security forces and collect information which in turn may be used to “hunt and kill” hostile forces. In addition, they can win “hearts and minds” of local populations through civil affairs work and performance of psychological operations against enemies of the freely elected Iraqi Government.
In January 2003, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld designated the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) as the lead military organization to prosecute the global war on terror but unfortunately that has not materialized. Although stellar Army commanding Gens. John Abizaid (retiring early next year) and George Casey continue to lead Middle East war operations and troops in Iraq respectively, they are products of the traditional warfare school. Moreover, nearly all of the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are, too.
It’s time to alter U.S. strategy by putting USSOCOM generals and admirals truly in command of the global war. And in Iraq, conventional forces could best serve by providing ground, air and sea support to USSOCOM and Iraqi security forces and sealing Iraq’s porous borders with hostile and/or dubious neighbors in Iran, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to prevent foreign jihadists, arms and sophisticated munitions from entering the country.
The action will surely meet resistance throughout DoD’s conventional warfare ranks, their industry partners and congressional allies. The U.S. active-duty military force consists of 1.4 million troops, of which only about 50,000 are elite special operators, with only several thousand deployed to Iraq. Many military professionals prefer to have special operators continue in a supporting, not leading, role.
Immediately after recently assuming his new post, Mr. Gates correctly stated that the United States must win in Iraq or face a “calamity” that would “endanger Americans for decades to come.” Since the fall of Baghdad, the United States has had the will to win but not the right strategy. It’s imperative that the United States transition quickly to an unconventional war strategy with USSOCOM generals and/or admirals in charge, or the war will be lost.
Fred Gedrich, who served in the Departments of State and Defense, is a foreign policy and national security analyst. Maj. Gen. Paul E. Vallely, retired, is a military analyst for Fox News and radio host for “Stand Up America.”